8 MINUTES, 46 SECONDS
June 18, 2020
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
When I took the citizenship exam at 18, my parents and I having emigrated from Canada to Los Angeles when I was 12, one of the questions I was asked was the origin of that quote. I correctly answered that it was in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
And then came May 25, 2020, a Memorial Day that will be etched in our national psyche, the day that George Floyd, an African American, bound and helpless and gasping "I can't breathe," lay dying in the street in broad daylight as a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Doesn't say much for Mr. Floyd's unalienable rights, does it? And we only know about him because of the horrifying video taken by a bystander.
Recently a dear friend sent me a jubilant email to tell me that her only son, whom I've known since he was barely tall enough to wrap his arms around my waist in a hug, would be presenting her with her first grandchild early next year. Since her son is biracial, I can only pray that if the child is male, he will grow up in a society where his dad will never need to have "the talk" with him. The time for change and for everyone's unalienable rights to be acknowledged and respected is long overdue.
How about 1968?
Then there was 1992.
And now 2020.
And then there were all the brutal incidents in between, the vast majority of which never came to light in the pre-cellphone era.
As I watch the marches and interviews on TV, "Harlem," a poem written by Langston Hughes in 1951, runs through my mind:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
As timely today as when it was published 69 years ago, it describes the limitations of the American dream for African Americans.
Systemic racism is a cancer that I believe is still treatable. While I have no scientific credentials when it comes to cancer, I've picked up some knowledge as a volunteer and 29-year survivor of this disease, so here's my quick intro to its four stages. Stage 1 usually means the growth is fairly small and contained where it started. Stage 2 usually means the tumor is larger but hasn't yet spread into the surrounding tissues. Stage 3 usually means the cancer is larger, may have started to spread into surrounding tissues, and there are cancer cells in the nearby lymph nodes. Stage 4 means the cancer has metastasized and spread from where it started to other parts of the body.
I'd say we're approaching Stage 4, and an intensive treatment protocol is in order, STAT.
The disease of racism needs to be eradicated, and that message is being delivered daily through the crowds we see on television, peacefully and passionately protesting across the country. And those crowds are diverse, which heartens me and gives me hope that we have reached a NEVER AGAIN moment. "Never again" is a phrase that has profound personal meaning for me as it is associated with the Holocaust, a horrific period in which I lost a great many family members for whom I continue to grieve. That grieving includes George Floyd, with whom I am connected – as are we all – as members of the human family.
Early in this article I mentioned that I came to this country when I was 12. That was in 1951, the same year a landmark case called Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka originated when the public school district in Topeka, Kansas refused to enroll the daughter of local black resident, Oliver Brown, at the school closest to the child's home, causing her to take a bus to a segregated black elementary school farther away.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court and captured my attention in 1954, before a decision was handed down. I was 15 and furious at what I saw to be a great inequity in the Board of Education's argument that racial segregation was not in itself a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause if the facilities in question were otherwise equal, a doctrine that had come to be known as "separate but equal."
I fired off a carefully typed multi-page letter to "Chief Justice, Supreme Court, Washington, DC" in which my opening sentence ran something like this: "Although I'm only a schoolgirl, common sense alone tells me that 'separate but equal' is inherently a false premise." I never received a response but I know the letter got there as it was never returned to me. And on May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." You can imagine my elation.
Now here I am, 66 years later, again with my sad and angry fingers on the keys. Wrong is wrong. Racism is wrong. I knew it then and I know it now. Thankfully, so do throngs of protesters of all races and creeds who refuse to be silent in the face of injustice.
Wanting the perspective of a black member of the community, I reached out to my neighbor, Pastor Michael Barrett, a husband, father, author, filmmaker and fellow Culver City resident about whom I had written in 2017 (https://www.culvercityobserver.com/story/2017/07/06/news/praying-lemons-into-lemonade/6773.html).
He graciously consented to be interviewed and began with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr .: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
"The killing of George Floyd has sparked a social movement in the heart of America that echoes the sound of Black Lives Matter throughout the world," Pastor Barrett continued. "While the cries of numerous killings of unarmed African Americans during slavery, the civil rights era and up to the death of Ahmaud Arbery may have missed their opportunity for justice, the court is now back in session. Today marks a paused moment in our history where the blind eyes of injustice can be opened and the America bell of liberty can ring forth its true tune of freedom."
He shared that "it is beyond my gated community that I find the greatest need. In June 2019 my wife sang as I gave a eulogy at the funeral of Ryan Twyman, who was murdered by LA County Sheriffs three days after his 24th birthday. Sheriff's deputies shot nearly 40 rounds into his vehicle, opening fire with an assault rifle after their sidearms emptied into his girlfriend's car as he sat there unarmed. His family is still pleading for justice. In my continued support for the family, I prayed at his gravesite June 3, 2020 one year later on what would have been his 25th birthday. Like George Floyd, Ryan was a father and he didn't deserve to die."
Pastor Barrett discussed his participation in the protests.
"With the continuing police brutality of unarmed African American men and women, my voice has joined the many voices in the world who believe 'enough is enough,'" he said. "Instead of talking about change, people have been taking their voices to the streets and drawing attention to the injustices of lethal force tactics within the police force, the need for criminal reform in the justice system, and the lack of job opportunities in inner city communities. The days of turning the other cheek and having dogs and water hoses released on black people have been put before a jury, and this time the jury of peers is the American people who see beyond color and want justice."
He was part of the protest on June 2nd when "black, white, Latino and Asian church leaders marched hand-in-hand with old and young residents of California, including community activists and students, to LAPD headquarters in a sign of unity with the community after several days of unrest across the nation and a day after peaceful protesters and clergy members were tear-gassed outside the White House. As the blood of George Floyd cries out from the ground, the protests will continue until justice is served."
He ended on a hopeful note.
"As we marched onto the streets of downtown to the Los Angeles Police Department, I felt the heartbeat of the crowd as they chanted 'no justice, no peace,'" he said. "The face of the crowd was the face of an America without its ugliness of racism, injustice and hatred."
It looks as if the message is getting through in Culver City, as I was pleased to see this post on the CCPD website:
"The Culver City Police Department shares in the public's disappointment and outrage regarding the disturbing circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd. As a professional law enforcement organization, public partnerships and building trust with our community is at the foundation of everything we do. The women and men of the CCPD continually strive to not only provide the highest level of public safety to our community, but to do so in a manner that is compassionate, professional, and is reflective of the diverse community we serve. Any lack of compassion or abuse of authority doesn't just tarnish our badge; it tears at the very fabric of law enforcement and community relations.
"Although this tragic incident occurred in a different part of our country, the CCPD understands and is sensitive to the fact that incidents like this can have a profound impact on all of our communities. CCPD would like to reassure all the members of our community that we will continue to hold all our members to the highest standards of accountability and transparency as we strive each day to foster and preserve the trust and relationship between our Department and the community we serve."
In this year of 2020 we especially need 20/20 clarity and vision because we're simultaneously experiencing not only a medical pandemic but a social pandemic as well. Brave folks like Pastor Barrett who are peacefully demonstrating and making themselves heard are what I consider first responders for justice, putting themselves out there for a cause that is truly a matter of life and death, as shown in the video of George Floyd's last breaths.
My hope is that we come away from this experience with not only empathy, compassion and wisdom but also with the ability gained through representation on federal, state and local levels to create the changes needed in order for EVERYONE'S unalienable rights to flourish. And talking about rights, PLEASE BE SURE TO EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE. If you're not registered, go to https://registertovote.ca.gov/. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters."